The new book American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us is based largely on a 2006 “Faith Matters” survey, conceived by some of the brightest political and religious studies minds of our time. Using their snazzy sociological doo-dads, authors Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell used over 3,000 responses to their two-wave panel study to check the American pulse on matters religious.1
The authors wished to take the temperature of the country’s religious affinity and hostility. Their “feeling thermometer consists of asking respondents to indicate how warm they feel toward different social groups (or people, or institutions, or whatever) on a scale of 0 to 100…[This] turns out to be an effective way of gauging the gut-level feeling people have toward different groups” (502). The thermometer can show how a given group feels about itself and how it is viewed by other groups, as well as the respective affinity or hostility of those feelings.
So how do Mormons stack up?
On the bright side, “no religious group in America feels warmer toward their own group than Mormons” followed by Jews, then Black Protestants and Catholics. Mainline Protestants, evangelicals, and people with no religious affiliation bring up the rear (503). (Is anyone else tempted to toss a little John 13:35 up in here?)
On the not-so-bright side, this bullet point stuck out to me:
- Mormons like everyone else, while almost everyone else dislikes Mormons.2
A rating of 55 or above constituted a positive rating. The “Not religious” (a fuzzy group) and Black Protestants give Mormons the lowest rating (45), followed by Evangelical Protestants (46), although they rate Buddhists and Muslims even lower (41 each). Buddhists and Muslims are rated slightly lower than Mormons. The three lowest scores belong to the three smallest religions, with the exception of Jews, who rank nearly the highest despite their relative small size.
Now, lest anyone rush to interpret opposition as evidence of truthfulness, we ought to take a few other things into consideration.
Ultimately, the authors argue that the religious environment in America should be ripe for conflict and schism based on its unique combination of high reported religiosity and high religious diversity. A lot of folks believing strongly in different things creates “a potentially volatile mixture” (494). Their explanation as to why inter-American religious conflict has, for the most part, remained relatively muted especially more recently is that an originally pragmatic toleration of diversity has become a more sure embrace through mingling and intermarrying. As people become more familiar with those of other faiths, especially through intermarriage or friendship, they realize the “other” may not be so bad after all. This would help account for the negative view of Mormons, who—like Buddhists and Muslims—are still small enough in number to miss the advantages afforded by greater familiarity. The authors discuss some other factors which might spur dislike (some directly, others indirectly, such as involvement with promoting political positions, etc.) but the familiarity factor seems to outweigh them.
2. The authors continue: “Jews are the exception, as they give Mormons a net positive rating (suggesting that there is a perceived commonality, given that they are both minority religions)” (509). A net positive rating is 55 or above. The rating groups include Evangelical Protestants, Mainline Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Not religious, Mormons, and Black Protestants. Mormons give every other group the highest rating with two exceptions: Jews like the “Not religious” folks by 3 more points and Mormons like the Buddhists a little less than the not religious and the Jews (chart on p. 508). The LDS Newsroom blog lists this as one of their take-aways from the book: “While data suggest that Mormons are among those viewed least positively by many American religious groups, they themselves hold relatively positive views toward members of other faiths,” “Major New Study of Religion Has Much to Say About Mormons,” newsroom.lds.org, 15 November 2010.